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Red Lake Reservation: A troubled history
By Sharon Schmickle
Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune


March 22, 2005

The secluded Red Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota has been plagued over the decades by more than its share of the seeds of violence: troubled schools, poverty, unemployment and bitter intertribal battles over basic rights.

Red Lake High School, where a student gunned down seven people before killing himself Monday, scored second-lowest of Minnesota schools last year on state comprehensive tests for 11th-grade math and third-lowest for 10th-grade reading. According to the state Department of Education's 2004 report card on the school, nearly one-fourth of the 355 students required special education, and the school failed to meet federal standards for reading and math. Four in five of the students met government poverty standards making them eligible for free and reduced-price lunches and other benefits.

On the reservation, which is largely closed to outsiders, all of the Red Lake High School students are American Indian, the state report said.

While school shootings have become a tragic reality for American students from a range of ethnic and economic backgrounds, many of the Red Lake students were born into a legacy of violence. And teens have lost their lives in earlier flare-ups on the reservation.

In 1979, dissidents staged an insurrection after tribal leaders removed one of the dissidents' sympathizers from the Tribal Council. Five armed dissidents broke into the reservation's law enforcement center and took several hostages. The FBI quickly ordered all police and sheriff's officers off the reservation, saying they faced life-threatening gunfire.

With no police presence on the reservation, dissident tribal members captured the police department's weapons and raided the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs storage area for confiscated liquor.

Then the insurgents set the law enforcement center on fire and went on a rampage of shooting and looting. The home of Roger Jourdain, who was then the tribal chairman, and other government buildings were burned to the ground.

When the rioting ended, two teenagers were dead of gunshot wounds, several were wounded and about $4 million in property was damaged, primarily by fire.

Five men were convicted and sentenced to prison in connection with the rioting.

In the 1980s, there was more unrest at the reservation over allegations of civil-rights abuses. Lawyers had been barred from tribal courts, and defendants were routinely denied bail, jury trials and other rights that federal laws were supposed to extend to Indians.

In 1986, a Red Lake band member, Gregory Good, accused Chief Tribal Judge George Sumner of running a court system that violated civil rights. One night after a dispute, Good shot Sumner to death. After hearing that Sumner had chased and beaten Good, a federal jury accepted arguments of self-defense and acquitted Good of homicide charges.

Under pressure of a losing federal funding, tribal officials moved to improve the courts during the 1990s.

Because of its isolation, Red Lake has had little luck with casino gambling, which has pulled some Minnesota Indians out of poverty. While the tribe has run casinos, revenues have been relatively low and many of the customers have been Red Lake residents.

Red Lake has pulled itself up recently, reducing its poverty rate during the 1990s, but more than four in 10 residents remained unemployed, according to a recent census report. During the 1990s, a new generation of tribal leaders also moved toward a more open and less autocratic government than the reservation had known earlier.


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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